Alex Oates’ puppet play is an unsettling and incoherent production littered with stereotypes and clichés – ★

It’s hard to approach All In A Row at the Southwark Playhouse without any preconceptions. After it was revealed that an autistic child was to be played by a puppet, #PuppetGate emerged on social media. The UK’s leading autism charity announced that it does not support the production.

Even if one ignores the controversy, there remains an elephant in the room. Billed as a “kitchen sink comedy”, the story follows parents Tamora (Charlie Brooks) and Michael (Simon Lipkin) as their non-verbal autistic son Laurence is about to be sent to a residential. The brief production examines the important issue of the struggle experienced by the parents, yet descends to a level of pity where the comedy fails to land, and is instead tasteless, juddering and harmful.

In a discussion with Michael, carer Gary (Michael Fox) shares the idea that children with learning disabilities are animals reincarnated as humans. While the remark is rightly challenged by both parents, their criticism is undermined by previous jokes about their child’s condition. It’s a harsh tone and precedent which also overshadows the average performances of Brooks, Fox and Lipkin.

The parents’ response to Gary’s remark – much like the discussion topics scattered across the plot – is throwaway. “Don’t say it in public,” Tamora says. Such is the incongruous script that it’s not clear if this is one of Oates’ many attempts to lighten the mood of the play, or forced virtue signalling.

Aside from Michael’s grievances with a certain cake brand, much of the juddering comedy centres around Laurence’s condition and aspects of his behaviour, when conversations about heart monitors, Disney movies or cat faeces become too divergent to the point of being tedious.

The over-reliance on the child and his autism – both in terms of comedy and moving the plot forward – is as exhaustive as it is predictable. An argument breaks out – wine-fuelled or not – an autistic meltdown occurs, and the cycle continues ad nauseam. In essence, the puppet on stage is as much of a offensive prop as it is a plot device and appalling comic relief to be used when the play’s clumsy narrative stalls.

Despite the creative team’s insistence that they consulted with those with experience in autism, the lack of research is painfully apparent. If they wanted puppeteer Hugh Perves’ presence on stage to be unnoticeable, then they would have learned from Avenue Q and avoided the exaggeration and the grey-skinned, corpselike puppet. If they wanted to accurately capture the experiences of parents of autistic children, then they should have watched The A Word to correctly show those lighter moments. If they wanted to cast a child actor as Laurence – autistic or not – they would have learned from The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night Time about how to use lighting and sound to get around a difficult or intensive scene.

Unsettling and deeply ignorant, All In A Row sees both narratives and autism awareness fall apart – all in under 90 minutes.

This review is of a preview performance. All In A Row is now playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 9 March 2019.

I attended this show for free as a plus one thanks to Connor Ward. You can watch his review now on his YouTube channel.

I am not autistic, but my concerns around this play come from being a member of the wider disability community.

I was not expected to write a review and the opinions in this piece are honest and my own.